By Andy Tharby
When we are not daydreaming of sun-kissed vacations in La Rochelle and Tuscany, June and July is the time that we begin turning our attention towards the next academic year. This time around, I am aiming to place more attention than ever before on my opening lessons with Year 7. The start of secondary school is a critical time and it is important that our new recruits get off to a flying start.
There is a well-described dip in performance and progress between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3. This dip is not fully understood. It is probably caused by a number of interlinked factors: changes in social groupings; changes in routines; the switch from a single teacher to discrete subjects; the differing emphasises of primary school and secondary school; and the onset of adolescence and the cognitive and emotional changes that come with it.
The subject matter, ideas and tasks of the opening lessons with Year 7 set the tone for the rest of the year and beyond. They allow us to take the students by the hand (metaphorically, of course!) and lead them over the threshold into the new and mysterious world of the subject discipline. It is important to remember that Year 7 students will not necessarily arrive with a pre-defined understanding of each subject. It is up to us, therefore, to define the shape, limits and story of our subjects.
The following ideas are useful for helping to induct Year 7 students into your subject discipline.
Define the subject. Find out what students already know about the subject and then find ways of widening this understanding. They will probably arrive with a host of misconceptions and simplified generalisations: geography is about maps; mathematics is boring; English is all story writing. Take the time to explain how your subject is different from other subjects, and why we study it in school. Focus on the intrinsic or aesthetic purpose of the subject and its relationship with truth and the never-ceasing conversation of mankind. For instance, we study history to understand our place in the world, and we study science to understand the natural phenomena around and within us.
Generate interest. Start the year with a particularly interesting topic, not an easy one. As well as teaching the knowledge set out on the curriculum, teach your students how to debate about and question this knowledge. Another useful tip is to begin by explaining your personal interest in your subject: why you are passionate about the subject, the things you are still learning, the obstacles you have surpassed to be where you are today.
Prioritise knowledge. Even though generating initial interest is important, Year 7 students must recognise the fundamental difference between spending time with new knowledge and retaining it for good. The beginning of Year 7 is the perfect time to form new habits and a new outlook on learning. It is a great time to introduce and explain the effectiveness of retrieval practice and regular low-stakes testing. Knowledge is for life, not just for Christmas!
Scaffold the discourse. Think of each subject as having its own grammar, its own language world. This is a set of language conventions – involving phraseology, syntax, vocabulary and idiomatic expressions – that reflect the kind of thought processes that are inherent to the discipline and used with ease by subject experts. Consider the importance of conditional clauses – if … then clauses – to scientific thinking: if you freeze water, then it becomes a solid. Or the way that English literature relies on tentative and exploratory language: the poet seems to hint that power dissipates and fades with time. We should aim to make these language worlds explicit and use this to scaffold students’ thinking, speaking and writing. A simple way to do this is through the use of sentence stems. Remember: many Year 7 students will have had limited access to these language worlds before – at home or school – and so they will need a thorough induction that starts in their first lesson with you.
Define excellence. Children need to start the year by setting goals for themselves. To help them to do this, we should define the features of excellent work right from the beginning. You could start by showing the class the work of successful students from last year. Another option is to create ‘a benchmark of brilliance’ in the first few weeks of term – a piece of work that sets the standard for the year to come. Alternatively, you might ask primary school teachers to send over the best work the child completed in Year 6; this helps both teacher and student to track real progress and helps to prevent the child from slipping off course.
Tell the story. A well-designed curriculum is a story and a journey. Create anticipation by dropping hints about what is to come over the next year (or even five years). Discuss some of the problems, obstacles and thorny questions to be faced along the way. Make the curriculum seem like a puzzle to be solved– one that is not too easy, but not too hard.
For a student new to secondary school, the beginning of year 7 is a time to reassess your goals and reinvent your interests and passions. The start of Year 7 should not be about ‘easing them in’ or ‘making it fun’. Instead it should be about helping a child to understand the value and role of the subject in the great and evolving narrative of humankind.